"California Über Alles" was the first single by the Dead Kennedys. The record was released in June 1979 on Optional Music with "The Man with the Dogs" as the b-side. The title track was re-recorded for the band's first album, Fresh Fruit for Rotting Vegetables (1980), and the version that appeared on this single, as well as the single's b-side, are available on the rarities album Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death (1987).
The lyrics were written by Jello Biafra and John Greenway, and Biafra composed the music in one of his rare attempts at composing directly on guitar.
The song focuses on Jerry Brown, the Governor of California between 1975 to 1983, and is sung from his perspective. An imaginary Brown outlines a hippie-fascist vision for America, in which his "suede denim secret police" kill un-cool people with "organic poison gas" chambers. The song illustrates lead singer Jello Biafra's concern with left-wing politicians mandating liberal ideas to the point of authoritarianism or fascism. Other lines, such as "Serpent's egg already hatched" (a reference to a line from William Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar), comment on the corrosive nature of power. The line "Now it is 1984" references the totalitarian regime of George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
The song is an early example of the Kennedys' trademark use of menace and musical tension. It fades in with sinister military-styled drums, joined by an ominous bass riff. Biafra paints the scene in low, sneering tones before bursting in manic chanting chorus: "California Über Alles[x2], Über Alles, California[x2]". After two verses and choruses, the song shifts into a slower middle eight section set to a martial drum beat over which Jello Biafra imagines the nightmarish actions of Brown's SS-styled secret police ("Come quietly to the camp; you'd look nice as a drawstring lamp"). The pace speeds up as it approaches the last iteration of the chorus, closing with a repeated proto-Thrash metal chord sequence accompanied by a final burst of explosive drums.
German-American author Gero Hoschek was inspired by the song to title a 1988 magazine piece about the "Golden State" in the prestigious German "Zeit Magazin" weekly titled "Kalifornia Über Alles!" (sic), as well as a never produced screenplay. Biafra complained, got and liked a copy of the movie script, understood that there was no copyright violation, and used the same spelling for the song's 2004 remake with the Melvins, "Kalifornia Über Alles, 21st Century".
On their EP In God We Trust, Inc., they recorded an updated version of the song, titled "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now," about then-President Ronald Reagan, including a lounge-jazz introduction, different lyrics, and several verses set at a much slower pace. A live version of the song was recorded with the instrumentals of the original version of the song.
Jello Biafra has made satirical references to the song in his political advocacy. A speech of his appears on the spoken word album Mob Action Against the State that is entitled "We've Got a Bigger Problem Now: War, Terrorism & Beyond." After the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California, Biafra commented, "California Über Alles indeed."
Another updated version of this song about Governor Schwarzenegger, called "Kali-Fornia Über Alles 21st Century", was performed live (among a few other Dead Kennedys classics) when Biafra toured with The Melvins to support their collaboration album in 2004. A live recording of this new version appears on their second collaborative effort, Sieg Howdy (2005).
During a show in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, The Jeff Penalty led Dead Kennedys sang a different version of the song, entitled "Pennsylvania Uber Alles". Jerry Brown was replaced by then Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, parodying his conservative politics and calling for fans to vote him out of office next election.
The band Hasidic New Wave perform a remake of the song on their 1999 album, Kabalogy. In their version, titled "Giuliani Über Alles", Jerry Brown is replaced by former Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani. The song is an attack on Giuliani's alleged dictatorial style and incidents of police brutality during his tenure.
The Delgados cover the song in their Peel Sessions CD set. Six Feet Under also cover the song in their "Graveyard Classics" album. The black metal band Mayhem also cover the song in first demo. Deceased (band) also covered the song on their punk covers album "Rotten to the Core".
Current hardcore band Ceremony has covered the song.
John Linnell and his band The Statesmen covered it live at least once during his "State Songs" tour, choosing to perform it because it mentioned the state of California.
Dramarama has recorded a version, updated in 2003 about current California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger..."You will lift weights in school"
Jello Biafra said in an interview with Nardwuar that he feels different about Jerry Brown, as it turned out he wasn't as bad as he thought he would be.
A 1986 live recording focused on Ronald Reagan on the album "Mutiny On The Bay" with live recordings from '82 and '86.